You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything


How does commentary affect the world around us?

Building Bookstore Culture Outside of Commerce: Why Amazon is literate culture’s best friend

Readers Internet-wide are fighting about whether to buy books at bookstores or at Amazon. The answer depends on why you buy books in the first place: to support the publishing industry, to support local literary culture, or to connect with great ideas. The answer depends on recognizing that supporting local bookstores may only achieve one of these goals—or none at all.

Amazon really isn’t trying to destroy bookstores. It isn’t trying to save publishing. It’s just trying to make money, and lots of it. In doing so, Amazon is following a principle that was stressed to me over and over in my graduate publishing program at Emerson College: like any other business, publishing is about making money. It’s not about books. It’s not about ideas. It’s not about editorial standards. It’s not about authors. And it’s certainly not about readers, either. All of these elements are just shiny, fun decorations on the publishers’ money train, which was badly derailed by technology and may never get back on track. The big problem (for publishers) is that Amazon has succeeded in making money from publishing and book sales where (many) traditional publishers have failed. Bringing down bothersome distribution and stocking costs through strategic warehousing and inventory has made it possible for consumers to pay less and Amazon to sell more. So what’s at the heart of the publishing problem?

Here’s something you might not know about bookstores: they return a huge number of the books they buy to the publisher, between 30-40%. Any unsold bookstore stock can be shipped right back for a refund (of the price the bookstore paid, which is far lower than the list price consumers would pay, the huge costs of returns to publishers being a big component of bookstore price markup). The publisher may then remainder these books, selling them at a huge loss, or just straight up destroy them. In a sense, then, by shopping in your local bookstore, you’re subsidizing the destruction of trees, printing of books, and shipment of products from publishers to bookstores and back.

Returns are publishing’s catch-22: difficult to make a profit with them, impossible to sell to bookstores without them. Bookstores may over-order titles that have a small chance of selling well, confident in the knowledge that they can return the copies if the book doesn’t take off. The returns system makes bookstore buyers generous and overconfident in ordering—and makes publishers take a big hit. In some sample P&L’s I made in a grad school course, the cost of returns was 160% the total profit of the book. It’s a persistent problem in the industry.

Amazon doesn’t get around the problem of returns—you can return almost anything to the retail giant. It does get around the problem of inventory, at least to some extent. By building a sophisticated inventory management and shipping infrastructure that can get almost any product to almost any place in almost no time at all, Amazon has created efficiencies of scale that smaller stores can’t match. And by selling so many products, it has tons of ways to cover its ass for any one product line that loses money.

If you didn’t know about returns, you probably didn’t know that book publishers tend to lose money on almost every single title they publish. Really. The profits from one or two big authors (think Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling big) often subsidize the rest of a publisher’s catalog. Publishers spend most of their time chasing big hits like this—not promoting smaller titles.

So your local bookstore promotes local authors, provides you valuable book recommendations, thought-provoking author readings, and a fun place to hang out. Great. Why not fund all that, instead of clinging to a clearly broken (and expensive) book distribution framework as the primary financial support for local culture?

In Amazon’s 2010 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos said, “Many of the problems we face have no textbook solutions, and so we—happily—invent new approaches.” Inventory is the big problem of publishing. It didn’t have a textbook solution, but Amazon helped invent a technology one. People who love reading should take advantage of that solution, and build a new way to support cultural events and authors. The new way doesn’t have to start with the traditional bookstore. It might, but it doesn’t have to.

Don’t get me wrong. I like books. I was an English major (which seems less and less like a wise decision, but I enjoyed it at the time). I then got an even less useful graduate degree in publishing. I read all the time as a kid, for lack of siblings and friends (don’t mock). And I’ve lived in a lot of cities, most of which I can define by amazing independent bookstores: Portland means Powell’s. Austin means BookPeople. Boston means Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith.

In Seattle, however, I haven’t found a favorite bookstore (I know, I know—it should be Elliott Bay Books, or Left Bank if I’m feeling alternative, or BLMF if I’m feeling underground—literally). Is that because Amazon has crushed this city’s literary soul? I don’t think so. I think it’s because Richard Hugo House, Seattle Arts and Lectures, Town Hall, 826 Seattle, and other literate organizations provide plenty of engaging events. I think it’s because I work right next to the (transcendently beautiful) Seattle Public Library, which happens to have an excellent Android app, an equally excellent holds system, and a fair share of e-books (if an initially confusing layout). I think it’s because there’s a coffee shop on every corner where I can curl up with my Kindle (Fire) or a real book (often library). I think it’s because technology is changing my life, and will always continue to do so. But it will never make me stop reading.

I don’t actually think Amazon is so great. I mean, it’s unquestionably great at what it does, which is sell a lot of shit and make a ton of money. But I have no illusions that Amazon is well-intentioned, or that it has any intellectual intent behind its reinvention of the publishing industry. If Amazon is reinventing publishing (and it surely is, in a way), it is doing so in service of one goal and one goal only: more profits for Amazon. None of us can make any mistake about that.

At the same time, shopping at your local bookstore cannot stop Amazon, or e-commerce, or electronic publishing. It can only delay the eventual takeover of local bookstores through weak, indirect financial support that subsidizes a bloated, unprofitable or not-too-profitable industry. Think: would Amazon have been able to take off so far so fast on the basis of bookselling if traditional publishing had been lean, innovative, and profitable across the board? Absolutely not.

Inventing a new system of supporting bookish minds probably can’t stop Amazon, either, but it can do a better job of supporting local literate culture. So why not try that instead? Traditional publishing hasn’t succeeded in saving bookstores, nor in supporting authors. Even Aimee Bender—a real live professional author you may have heard of, who has published some books—says it’s hopeless to be a writer these days. Only the luckiest high-profile authors support themselves through writing novels alone; most have other day jobs, whether as columnists or consultants or insurance salespeople or—commonly—creative writing teachers, teaching others to do what they do not make a living at themselves.

But why should it be a dream to get paid to do what you love?

I’m moving to San Francisco in a few weeks. I’ll be lugging several boxes of traditionally published, bookstore-bought books (almost no books I own are actually from Amazon) with me, but I’ll also be bringing my Fire. I’m excited to bask in the beatnik glow of City Lights, listen for echoes of Ginsberg, and spend late nights browsing Green Apple Books. I’m also excited to circle 1 Infinite Loop, see visions of black turtlenecks, and meet some of the incredibly brilliant people (who are not just at Apple, to be clear) working nonstop to make sure that technology makes us smarter and makes our lives better. Maybe I’ll even join them in that crusade.

If their work—our work—results in more bookstores, great. If it means fewer bookstores, okay. As long as it doesn’t mean a diminished exchange of ideas, information, and even artistic ecstasy. And you can buy as many books as you want from your local bookstore. Just don’t be surprised when that small investment in a broken system doesn’t turn out to be as effective as Amazon’s huge investment in a new one.


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“The Comments Section” on SNL: Is It Really That Funny?

Last weekend, SNL ran a skit called “The Comments Section,” which used a talk show format to irrelevant three types of internet commentary: negative commentary, embodied by a overweight, balding older man; immature sexual commentary (consisting mostly of “boobz”), embodied by a nerdy-looking young man; and irrelevant political commentary, embodied by an overweight, unkempt woman. The “talk show” host reviewed the comments each “guest” had posted online, and asked the guests to explain their thought process or motivation, which each summarily failed to do.

The skit even confronted the first commenter with one of his “comment victims,” a grandmother whose hat fell off during a birthday celebration. The comment–“Dumb ass old lady! Haha, her hat fell off. Kill yourself.”–motivated the grandmother to simply pronounce the commenter “rotten”–an accurate assessment.

The skit effectively pointed out the mean-spirited absurdity of much online commentary, but didn’t go much beyond that. Given the general portrayal of the commenters as stereotypical “losers,” nerdy and overweight, and lacking a girlfriend (in the case of the second commenter), the implication is that people without “real” or offline lives attempt to make themselves relevant by persistently posting negative and/or irrelevant comments online. But given the incredibly widespread nature of inane online commentary, it seems likely that a larger group of people is responsible.

The fact that online commentary is being recognized as largely irrelevant on a mainstream show such as SNL suggests that its uselessness is widely acknowledged. Still, the question remains, what can be done about this? Is mocking irrelevant commentary–already a widespread practice in comments themselves–a potential solution? Or does it just perpetuate a focus on thoughtless commentary (and am I doing just that right now)? I would propose that no problem can be resolved without being identified, and I do think that insipid commentary is a problem–it wastes time and doesn’t lend to the conversation. But it may be doing more than that, by inuring people to thoughtless exchanges and, perhaps worse, offensive language.

An AP-MTV poll found that although 51% of teens encounter discriminatory language on social networking sites (which are largely just strings of status updates and/or comments), many of them dismiss such language as people simply trying to be funny. Two-thirds of teen respondents said discriminatory words used against black people were mostly jokes, while 75% said negative language used against women was intended to be amusing, and the majority of teens are not offended when something is called “gay” in a negative manner.

In the SNL skit, one of the guests was portrayed as having commented “mad gay yo” on a video of a horse rescuing its owner from a dangerous situation. When asked what was “gay” about the video, the commenter responded, “the horse.” Even putting aside the question of what words are offensive, this use of language clearly demeans language itself, in that it removes significant meaning and creates a very limited vocabulary of words used only to mock or bring down, not to contribute to the conversation.

In a world where we have TV shows mocking online comment mocking anyone–where does the meaning lie? Perhaps in examining each situation to see what, if anything, we can learn from it. And if there’s no meaning, in recognizing that, and in working to create more meaning in our next comment, skit, blog post, or conversation.

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Two Months Gone, Not Forgotten

Wow! Can’t believe it’s been two months since I’ve managed to post here. In that time, I’ve moved to a new town, started a new job, and officially received my master’s degree (hurrah!), so you’ll excuse me for not posting frequently. I’d like to get back into the swing of things, though, and came across two interesting articles that might help me do it.

The first was Simon Dumenco’s Twitter lament, in which he decries the allegedly Twitter-inspired tendency to post, tweet, retweet, and generally (virally?) spread information without understanding it. In doing some tweeting for my new job, I can say that I’ve run across more than a few instances of folks tweeting and even retweeting an article without apparently reading beyond the title, dismissing the substance in favor of some style. There are “scientifically proven” magic phrases that elicit retweets, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a surprising amount of folks retweet based on headlines only without reviewing the actual linked content.

Is that bad, though? Dumenco seems to think so, theorizing that over-production of content means “we’re all living in some Bizarro universe where we’re constantly debating stuff that’s not actually up for debate” and that’s “all rewiring our brains in really weird, unexpected and often unfortunate ways.” It’s true that there’s so much more content than ever before–but there are also more people than ever before, and more ways for them to connect. So shouldn’t this make us smarter, not stupider? All of this community and commentary should give rise to a form of collective intelligence that wouldn’t be possible without online interaction. I don’t think mindless retweeting is a good thing, but it’s not 100% bad–and it doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool for thought-provoking conversation.

Of course, it’s easier and more hilarious to just say that Simon Dumenco hates kittens, so maybe I’ll do that anyway.

The other topic I wanted to address briefly is (Twitter-based) geographic location services. It’s interesting that in a delocalized/globalized economy and world, some of our most immediate technological tools are being tweaked to tell others the most mundane information of all: where we are physically. What’s the implication of using broad technology for such specific, local purposes? Will technology, which once led commercialized agriculture and other large-scale efforts, suddenly be at the forefront of a charge to eat/breathe/think/do locally? I’m interested to see the outcome of using these technological tools on a local scale.

That’s all for now, folks, but I hope to be back a little sooner than last time!

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Tweets are Comments: Are Tags?

I’ve expanded the definition of commentary exponentially as I continue to write about it. In some ways, nearly everything can be viewed as a comment. A tweet is a comment, if sometimes an inane one. A comment on a blog post is an inane one, even if it promotes something different from the original post’s agenda. A comment is anything that says something, has a point of view. And a comment must be published to be meaningful. In order for your commentary to have an effect, it has to be public. And perhaps more importantly, it has to be read–by others, who will comment in return. Unlike Ian Shapira’s hope for unremitting, unresponsive adulation, any good work should invite commentary, conflict, and debate. If we’re not putting it up for discussion, we shouldn’t be putting it out there.

In his influential book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky uses Flickr as an example of hands-off collaboration, made possible by tagging. He describes how easy it is to find images of a particular item or event on Flickr, in contrast to how hard it would be to specifically contract people to take such pictures. By removing the need for organization and simply giving users tools to organize themselves, Flickr made it possible for people to access images in new ways. Most of Flickr’s functionality is based on tagging: from the original photographer, not necessarily other users. If anyone could tag, would the tagging lose its functionality, or become even more interesting?

A tag, then, is a comment. It adds value. It makes a judgment about something. It expresses an opinion. In that sense, a review is also a tag or a comment. Lawrence Lessig, writing in Remix, agrees that “Tagging thus added a layer of meaning to RW [read/write] content. The more tags, the more useful and significant they become… As they add meaning to content, these tools also enable collaboration… As the reader “writes” with tags or votes, the importance of the original writing changes.” Stars in a review “tag” an item as good or bad; the text of the review offers further commentary. Even “likes” on Facebook have taken over comments. Instead of writing on a friend’s wall or writing something about a friend’s status update, you can just click a button to show that you “like” what your friend has said or done.

Is everything a comment these days? Maybe. Commentary is breaking down into a variety of forms. This is not necessarily bad, just different. We have more ways than ever to respond to something. What’s important is responding at all.

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Do Your Tweets Model You?

In Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte talks about the need to “model” his sister-in-law so he can buy her a present. In Remix, Lawrence Lessig mentions how Amazon can best model his purchasing habits, thanks to all the information they have about him. Now, there’s Twanalyst, which can tell you all about you based on your tweets.

It’s somewhat scarily accurate. The report for my personal Twitter account nails my personality as “likeable, inquisitive, cautious,” and calls my style “chatty” and “coherent” (wonder what it takes to be labeled incoherent!). I’m called a WRITER, which may be because I am one, or because I say I’m one in my personality. Either way, it’s relatively on par with reality (or so I’d like to think).

What does the service have to say about the Twitter account for Bostonist, the website about Boston that I help run? Bostonist’s personality is “renowned, sociable, vain” and our style is “chatty, academic.” (Is it chatty because I write so many of the posts?) We are identified as a ROBOT. The Bostonist Twitter account is primarily just a feed of our blog posts, so that makes sense. I am interested in our “renowned, sociable, vain” personality though. Are we renowned because we have so many followers (only about 1500, but more than many Twitter accounts)? Because we get retweeted a decent amount? Or is the retweeting what makes us sociable? Finally, “Vain” is perhaps the most interesting comment… does it stem from US not retweeting other content often (we don’t)? From our “royal we” writing style (which doesn’t usually come through in the tweeted content, I don’t think)? I’m not sure. Regardless, an interesting outcome.

Finally… what does the Twanalyst have to say about the Twitter feed of THIS blog? Well, it’s a little disappointing. My “talking” personality is “ordinary, sociable, cautious”–basically a blend of Bostonist and my personal account, but with “ordinary” thrown in. Ordinary is never a word you want applied to you! My style is “quiet, academic,” which makes sense. I am identified as a ROBOT which is true because the Twitter account is just a feed of the blog.

So it seems that automated personality analysis can have something to say about what we say on Twitter, and at least some of it is reasonably accurate. But what can it really be used for, other than telling us some things we probably already knew? Could it be used to connect people with similar personalities? Is that even a good idea, since “opposites attract” and all? Twanalyst in particular seems to be in beginning stages, but I think that “metatweets” containing information about what your tweets mean and what demographic your tweets peg you as will become valuable, particularly for advertisers. So, careful what you tweet… they’ll know what brands you’re looking for!

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Social Relevance in Search

Back before the internet, the main ways to find out about stuff were to look in books or to ask people. For more serious, academic topics, you might turn to books—encyclopedias if you were in a hurry. But for everyday recommendations, you might just ask somebody: where’s the best brunch in Brookline, what dry cleaners should I go to? You didn’t have Google, Yelp, Chowhound, or other similar services to help you out.

Now it’s starting to feel like search—parts of it, at least—is coming full circle. On ReadWriteWeb, Brynn Evans discusses social relevancy in search, wondering about the best way to achieve it. Several obstacles are explored: imperfect access to information (your social search tools will not have access to information from everyone you want to get information from), varying levels of expertise (an attorney doesn’t always want her friends’ “opinions” on a law; rather, she might be more interested in professional perspectives on it), and so on.

Evans creates a continuum, from active search to passive discovery. On the continuum, in this order, RWW identifies the following: friends and following, taste neighbors, friends-of-friends, experts and influencers, and “the crowd.” That is, social aspects matter more when search is more active. If you’re in the “market,” so to speak, for a new dry cleaner’s, you will ask your friends in addition to perhaps searching online. But if you are satisfied with your existing service you will not seek out a new one, and only passively file away (probably to be forgotten) information you come across about dry cleaners.

One interesting aspect of the search-discovery continuum that Evans proposes is that social media can be woven throughout it. There’s no necessary distinction between social and non-social search; rather, the distinction is between the level of urgency/necessity of the search. Additionally, it’s possible to flip the proposed continuum: it’s easy to imagine situations in which you’re actively searching for something that you want an expert opinion on, rather than that of your friend. If you need legal advice, for example, you’re probably not going to tweet about it—or you might, but you’ll ultimately go with your lawyer’s response rather than your best friend’s.

I think the takeaway from Evans’ continuum and the notion of social search in general is that social information—of which we have so much now, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and the like—is going to be continually important in search. From the proposed Wikia Search (a user-powered search engine where users could “vote” on results) to retweets of important or popular information, there are many approaches to take to social search. The apparent demise of Wikia Search is unfortunate, but computerized algorithms will not continue to be the status quo of search. The algorithms should be adjusted to take into account human input and ratings. Human response—even in the form of blog/article comments, too long neglected as sources of information—must be calibrated in some way. This will change the search game and SEO for good, but it will also—hopefully—make better information easier to access.

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Linked Data, Not Linked People?

In an interview with ReadWriteWeb (part two here), Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet!) discusses the semantic web, data mapping, and linking data points. This technology is definitely an important first step in making use of the immense, even overwhelming, amount of information and ideas that I’ve already mentioned on this blog. But it is not the end point. No matter how impressive the technology, its results still need to be processable and usable by humans. The interview also touches on government data and the importance of accessibility of data–in any format. On that note, Berners-Lee comments on the importance of the search engines’ adoption of RDFa, which he sees as a very positive development that may be key in increasing information accessibility.

Berners-Lee also recognizes the need for different ways to access data: “…there are lots of different ways that people need to be able to look at data. You need to be able to browse through it piece by piece, exploring the world of data. You need to be able to look for patterns of particular things that have happened.” The semantic web is not just about providing one way to access data, it’s about providing the best tools to find and analyze data. Berners-Lee makes an important point about the difference between generic and specific data interfaces. A generic interface is necessary for finding the right type of information; a specific interface is needed in order to properly analyze a specific type of data (books vs. chromosomes, for example).

Could comments count as data? Currently, comments sometimes return in search results, and you can even subscribe to comment feeds by RSS, but comments are not necessarily something that you can search specifically as a type of data. I know that I’ve sometimes read insightful comments that I would like to be able to find later, but I’m more easily able to access the comments through searches for the material of the original article. What if we could more easily find out what others thought–not necessarily product reviews (which are pretty easy to locate), but actual ideas? Could, someday, data automatically “comment” on other data, contextualizing and expanding on its significance? Or will data be able to “query itself” and find associated data, which its own information can then comment on? It may be a way off, but it may also be the future.

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Blogging: The New Revolution?

Much has been made of the “blog revolution,” empowering the average American to voice his or her opinion online, at length (or briefly, as the case may be). But in Zero Comments, Geert Lovink makes the case that blogging is a more explicit form of sticking it to the man than it’s often given credit for. Calling blogging a form of “creative nihilism that openly questions the hegemony of mass media,” Lovink goes on to explain blogging’s status as an alternative that not only questions but potentially threatens the traditional media industry.

Given the difficulties that newspapers have had staying in print, with many papers moving online-only and others (like the Boston Globe) up for sale, it seems that even if blogging or alternative online journalism has not yet risen to the level of traditional media, the traditional media have at least been wounded. Is this good, bad, or ugly for media as a whole? Given the tendency of mass media to over-focus on the same inane story, reporting the same details as every other channel (Michael Jackson’s passing is a good example) while ignoring the possibility that bigger, undiscovered stories might exist to be reported on rather than regurgitated, it seems that blogs have emerged as an important alternative that will at least keep mainstream media on their toes, if not necessarily thinking on their feet.

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Can Online Communities Prevent Disaster? Deal with It Successfully?

Iran recently followed in China’s footsteps and blocked online communication tools like Twitter and Facebook in the aftermath of its disputed presidential election. China blocked these tools to suppress the memorialization of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, while Iran is taking this step in an environment that some speculate may escalate to Tianenmen proportions.

These countries’ dual blocking of important communication tools suggest that such tools may have become crucial to fostering a democratic society. Amartya Sen‘s famous theorization that democracies do not experience famine presents an interesting correlation here. Does online communication foster democratic tendencies, and thus threaten authoritarian regimes? Is our ability to communicate easily, for (nearly) free, on a regular (perhaps even too frequent) basis what keeps our society functional?

Though Cass Sunstein worries that the internet is too polarizing, allowing people to focus solely on sites that promote or support their own political opinions, it’s clear that the internet is also a tool for obtaining and exchanging new information. If online communities only fostered what people already thought (or were forced to think), would governments be so scared of them?

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Commentary Gets Flickr User in Trouble

Photosharing site Flickr recently erased the entire account of one user based on a comment he made on a White House photo thread. Business Week quotes the deletion victim as saying, “I thought it would be an appropriate place to start a discussion about politics. There’s this kind of gray area – is it owned by the White House vis-à-vis the American people and the taxpayers, or is it owned by Flickr?”

Free speech is protected by the Constitution, but not necessarily by individual websites. Can a site reserve the right to take entire accounts–not just comments–down based on users’ speech? Further complicating the issue is the fact that the account in question was deleted not necessarily for speech, but for graphic images–of torture victims–posted in his commentary. The pictures certainly added strength to the argument (the commentary was opposed to Barack Obama’s decision to allow the censorship of torture photos). But were they too offensive? Perhaps the real question at the heart of the matter is, do we truly “own” our online “communities” (or commentary, or photos) as long as they’re taking place on sites owned by corporations?

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Tweeting a Lot

  • The First Time I Ever Saw That Video: Why?: I thought parts were beautiful; parts were silly. Erykah Badu and he... 6 years ago
  • Homelessness Meets Privilege at SXSWi: Yesterday, I attended Leslie Cochran’s memorial service in Austin. Though... 6 years ago
  • Building Bookstore Culture Outside of Commerce: Why Amazon is literate culture’s best friend: Readers Internet-w... 6 years ago
  • “The Comments Section” on SNL: Is It Really That Funny?: Last weekend, SNL ran a skit called “The Comments Secti... 6 years ago
  • Likes, Checkins as Forms of Commentary: Since my last posts here, I wonder whether online (or even mobile) comme... 6 years ago
July 2018
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